The Night Before Christmas

By

Carol Foss

 

"I'll get airsick, I just know I will," Lt. Cmdr. Will Jamison complained in the blackness of the night, leaning against the wire fencing surrounding the Scampi Seaplane hangar.

"Do you want to help me or not?" Lee Crane handed his Chief Medical Officer some more of their specialized gear.

"What I want is for you to take it easy, not drag yourself or me on this...this..."
"Will you quit harping? Now, come on. You're the one always complaining about not being able to keep an eye on me. Here's your chance."

"In Sickbay or at home, not undercover!"

"Shhhh!" Crane shoved his uncooperative operative into the shadows. "You want us to get found out? This mission is absolutely essential," he checked his watch, "and timing is everything."

"When I think of all the times I've saved your life, and this is the thanks I get..."

"So sue me. Look, Will, sorry, I didn't mean it that way. Please don't think I don't appreciate all you've done, but now's not the time to argue the fine points. Now, c'mon, our contact should be waiting."

***

The Hot Apple Cider wasn't very good, but at least Cookie had tried. Admiral Nelson had put on a good face for the sake of his crew, but it was forced and everyone knew it, for it was a disheartened lot aboard Seaview. It wasn't only the Navy mission at the height of the holiday season, but he and his crew were also missing their Skipper. Lee Crane had been on on medical leave when Seaview was ordered to test some highly specialized sonar equipment, and frankly the crew was tired of Admiral Jiggs Starke's unending complaints.

 

Not that their XO couldn't handle things, certainly Chip Morton had proved his mettle on more than one occasion, but he hadn't talked back to Nelson's old friend like Crane was wont to do. To Morton's credit he did try it once, but the ensuing dressing down had apparently insured that he wouldn't do it again. And Nelson, well, he was simply missing Crane's company. It didn't help that Jiggs needled him about the almost father-son relationship that had unintentionally evolved between the two over a relatively short time. So Nelson was a bit testy to say the least.

Jiggs leaned back in the lounger in the Observation Nose, which was decked out with bunting and a decorated tree, "So, Harriman, what had you wanted to do for Christmas before the Navy confiscated Seaview?"

"You don't have to keep reminding me! I just don't think serving as your flagship for these tests was a job for Seaview. Other boats..."

"Other boats don't have the amenities," he raised his glass, "And the SecNav chose her, not me. Besides, they'll be finished soon enough."

"Hmpf. Anyway, in answer to your question, I was going to visit my sister.

And you? What were you looking forward to, or is this it?"

"You think I want to be here at Christmas? Hardly. What I want," he patted his stomach, "is some of my grandmother's homemade pumpkin pie and turkey dinner with all the trimmings, God rest her. My wife's hopeless in the kitchen. Speaking of hopeless, will your cook be up to it tomorrow? If the cider was any indication..."

"There's nothing wrong with the cider!"

"Harriman. I've been aboard now, what, three weeks? In all that time I haven't had one meal meeting Navy standards. Getting skimpy on the paychecks? In fact, old friend, I'm afraid there's a lot aboard Seaview I'm finding questionable and..."

"As I've told you before, you're here as an official observer only, not an inspecting Admiral for the Reserve Board!"

"Sorry. Don't burst a blood vessel.... Damn..."

"What?"

"You're not going to believe this, but I think I kind of miss Crane telling me off. You don't do it near as well he does."

Whatever response Nelson was expecting it wasn't that, and both men ended up laughing heartily.

 

Kowalski, on station in the Control Room stretched the kinks out as he heard their laughter. It wasn't fair. They were enjoying themselves and he and his buddies were stuck aboard the stupid sub when they ought to be home with friends and family and...

"Ski!" O'Brien interrupted his thoughts. "Get your attention back on that screen. I donít know about you, but I am not returning Seaview to the Skipper with scratched paint or a dent in her side!"

"Aye sir. Sorry, sir," and he was, he couldn't help thinking. Here he was bad thinking the boat when Crane had gone and gotten hurt on a camping trip, a real one, not an ONI assignment, bad enough for Doc to insist the Captain stay at home for this one. The Bear's claws had punctured deep into the skin, and the bite had almost cut some tendons. He's only been released from Bethesda Naval Hospital a week ago. Oh gawd, Ski suddenly mused, what if he'd said something bad about the boat out loud? It would have gotten back to the Skipper and if he found out....

"Mr. O'Brien?" Sparks voice calling out interrupted his thoughts," We got a...well, a kind of situation."

"Well, out with it, man."

"Miss Angie called to say the Skipper's gone missing. She wanted to call him about something and she can't find him anywhere..."

"Gone missing?" O'Brien asked, hoping Sparks had misunderstood.

"Yeah, she checked his apartment, Security did the Institute, even the Med Center...it's like he just...vanished...again, sir," Sparks added with a sigh.

Uh oh. Ski looked at the Admirals in the Nose sadly. It wouldn't be long before that laughter was going to turn into...well...

They all knew the drill and Ski wondered who O'Brien would select to hand out earplugs. Then he and the other Jr. Officers on watch would draw straws or matchsticks, whichever was the most handy, to decide which of them would tell Nelson that the Skip, on leave or not, had apparently caved into his James Bond Syndrome, which in his case, as all knew was incurable. By the time Morton was informed, Sparks would have contacted ONI for official confirmation, of course, which seldom came, and O'Brian would have summoned the duty corpsman or sawbones to stand by to treat the XO's dangerously raised blood pressure... yep, O'Brien had chosen the short match and taking a deep breath before treading to the Nose. It was going to be a long night.

***

"Just breathe normally Will," Lee ordered as he checked the small craft's exterior, all the while glancing backwards to make sure no alarm had sounded.

"I'm going to check myself into the hospital for a CAT scan when this is over, I have to have been insane to have agreed to this," he stowed the wire cutters into a zippered bag, one of many.

"You want to back out, now's the time," Crane tossed the bag into the passenger seat of the aircraft and squeezed himself into the cockpit.

"And face Morton and Nelson's wrath leaving you to fend for yourself?" Doctor Jamison loaded some specialized equipment, "Hah!"

"Will you quit with the babysitter mode, Jamie? You agreed with Bethesda that I was out of danger, didn't you?"

"Yes, but you're a long way from being fully fit," Jamison scowled as he sat beside him.

"Will you two quit arguing?" their contact intervened. "Lee, you got the coordinates?"

"Yes, mother."

"Very funny. Jamie? You sure you have everything on that list?"

"I checked it twice, enough already. I might not like this, but I'm not an imbecile. And Lee's got possession of it now. The balls' in his court."

"Sorry, Joe," Lee said as Lt. Cmdr. Joe Jackson finished stowing the last of the items they needed, "I forgot to tell you he bites."

"Good luck," Jackson said jumping out of the craft and removing the chocks tying the plane to the dock. In seconds he gave Lee the traditional thumbs up.

Crane revved up the engine.

"You sure you know how to fly this thing?" Jamison queried nervously.

"I'm a qualified Flying Sub and Jet Fighter aviator," Lee said mildly exasperated. It wasn't like Jamie to be so nervous. But then this was no ordinary undercover mission. "Flying this reject from some surplus yard's no big deal," Lee added.

"Uh huh, then I guess you meant to turn on the windshield wipers."

"Oh."

"I knew I should have stayed home and taken my phone off the hook," Jamison said as the craft skimmed along the water for a rather lengthy time before becoming airborne.

***

"Doug..."Nelson pleaded on the videophone in his cabin as Morton and Starke stood by.

"Look, Harry, I told your radio operator, now I'm telling you! Crane's not on assignment! You think we'd turn him out in the field so soon after his release from Bethesda?"

"In a word, yes!"

"Well, we don't know the hell where he is! Ask the CIA if you think they had anything to do with it, but they don't usually bypass the boundaries between organizations. Maybe he's just gone home."

"Angie checked his apartment."

"No, no, no, I mean home...his mothers'..."

"She's in the Amazon on a Peace Corps expedition," Morton said,"Lee told us about that last month..."

"Oh shit," Doug said and began to punch numbers on his phone unit.

"What is it Doug? Don't keep us in the dark."

"I'll have to get back to you. Out."

***

"Can't Sparks pipe anything else in?"Sharkey complained to Acting Captain, Lt. Cmdr. Morton in his cabin. "It ain't right sir. Christmas music? When the Skipper's traipsing off in the jungle to rescue his mom from canibals and head hunters and God knows what..."

"We don't know that's what he's doing, Chief."

"Yeah, well it's something he would do, isn't it."

***

"Damn," Lee said as the seaplane rolled with the waves.

"What? What?" Jamison asked nervously.

"I didn't want to worry you, but inertial navigation was glitching off and on for about an hour before we landed. I'm pretty sure we're in the right place but if the fog doesn't clear and show me some stars to confirm our location, the mission's a bust."

"Confirm our....Do- you- mean to tell me, we're...lost?"

"Technically?" Crane gave him his best wounded puppy look. It had helped before when he'd gotten into trouble.

"What the hell does that mean??" Jamison demanded, not rising to the bait.

"Easy Will...Look," Lee checked his watch, "I know our general location, just not our precise location and that's what we need to know for this mission to succeed."

"Why haven't we radioed for help?"

"Can't. Would blow our cover. Wait a minute..."Lee scrambled from his seat and began to tear into some of the cargo in the back."Well don't just sit there, give me a hand!"

"Uh, Lee? What are looking for?"

"This," Lee pulled out the manifest, "here, line twenty five, now, c'mon..."

***

"You realize, don't you Harry," the SecNav said, "we now have ourselves an international incident, thanks to you alerting ONI? Damn it, even the CIA didn't know Mrs. Crane just happened to be at a reception in Brazilfor their new President. How would you feel if the US Ambassador interrupted your party,requesting a search team to enter cannibal infested jungle to find what remained of Mrs. Crane and her missing son? She nearly had a heart attack when she found out Lee was missing. Look, Harry, ONI knows how Crane operates. And they assure me this isn't it. He's been intentionally lost before, hasn't he? He's probably having himself a grand old time someplace, wine, women, and song, not a care in the world..."

***

"Well that's just great, we don't have any batteries!" Lee complained of the small electronic unit.

"Lee, I know you're disappointed, but...let's just go home...what now?"

"Not yet. Now, this might not work," Lee plugged the GPS unit into the cockpit cigarette lighter. "Remind me to thank Joe for finding a plane with one of these. Not standard equipment. Right on target!" Lee added happily as the GPS revealed the info he needed.

"Yippee," Jamison said acerbically.

"Okay, c'mon, let's get ready for the main event."

"Uh, Lee..."Jamison nodded to the smoking GPS.

"It does look kind of hot..."

"It's on fire you idiot!" Jamison yanked it out. "Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!"he yelled as he tried to keep hold of it long enough to toss out the window plane's hatch. "This is all your fault," he blew on his hands.

"Hey, I'm not the one who insisted on coming along."

"Me? You asked me!"

"And you didn't have to appoint yourself my babysitter, either."

"Well, excuuuusse me!"

"Will? What are we doing arguing? It's Christmas Eve, you know, peace on Earth, good will toward..."

"Just shut up and help me sort the gear."

"I knew you were a soft touch," Lee jibbed.

"Ha. Just wait till I get you in my sick bay again."

"Wanna' bet?" Lee flashed him a huge smile.

"I give up."

***

It was nearing midnight and all hands aboard Seaview were both relieved and anxious. Relieved the Skipper probably hadn't been eaten and anxious because they still didn't know where he was.

"Admiral?" Riley called out from his console in the Control Room, "I'm picking up something weird. And close...about a hundred yards above us. But it doesn't profile like any kind of biologic I've ever seen. Looks sort of like a camel or a dolphin with a hump maybe...but what are those? See?There, there and there..."he pointed to the blips.

"I can't see it from the scope," Nelson interrupted, handing the scope over to Morton. "Jiggs, would any of the previous tests the Navy did adversely affect any life forms?"

"You've seen as much as I have. They all seem fine to me."

"Hey!" Morton exclaimed, "Something just brushed over the viewer. I think it's red."

"We're not picking up any other subs," Starke said.

"No sir, red as in color...kind of hard to tell...whatever it is, it's blocking the view."

"Something's settling on the hull!" one of the crewmen said from his console.

"Sail camera!" Nelson ordered as he turned on the monitor. "C'mon, c'mon..."

"Sorry sir, the camera's just popped, like it was bumped and shattered."

"I don't like this," Starke said.

"Neither do I," Nelson said just as they heard the top escape hatch wheel turn. "What the dev...The hatch can't be opened without our release."

"No response to our hatch controls sir."

"Get the master at arms up here," Nelson said while hurrying to the weapons locker to distribute guns, "prepare to repel boarders. That's no fish topside."

No sooner than the escape hatch's water whooshed away the men below heard some hurried and whispered echoes... 'shhh', 'hurry up'...'hold still'..'They'll be up here soon'...

"Open that hatch!" Nelson ordered.

Morton climbed the ladder and tried to turn the wheel. "It's jammed," he reported.

"Told you," the invisible voice muttered," the jigg's up."

"Jiggs up, that's funny.."

"No it's not."

"Pick, pick, pick," the other hissed back. "There, all set. Ready?"

The hatch wheel turned.

The armed men in the Control Room looked up, guns at the ready.

The hatch opened and a red diver's bootie took its first step, followed by another. Large red velveteen pants followed, attached by suspenders over the not quite matching red wetsuit, then the torso, along with a white flowing beard attached to...Crane.

"Ho, Ho, Ho, Merrrrry Christmas!" he cheerily said in his best 'Santa' voice and jumped off the rungs putting on a red velvet Santa cap over his wet curly hair .

"Lee!" Morton exclaimed.

'Santa' Crane stroked his 'beard,' "Name's Santa, or maybe Kris Kringle, the last I heard...but then, perhaps my diver's license was recorded incorrectly, that last ticket in Timbuktu when Rudolf got lost...Elf? Where's my bag? Come on down now, there's nothing to be afraid of."

"I'm not afraid, I'm just damned embarrassed," Jamison handed down part of the 'camel', actually one of several large red lined net bags full of sealed plastic packages, along with the spent scuba gear and air bags that had aided in their descent.

It was difficult for the crew not to notice their doctor sporting a bent green cap, green pants, also held up by suspenders, overa black wetsuit, and pointed elf slippers over his diver's booties.

"Now, let's see," Crane continued in is best 'Santa' voice, and pulled out the manifest. "According to my list which my loyal elf checked..."

"Twice," Jamison said as he sorted through the parcels.

"Ah, yes, never fails to have backup as Prancer keeps telling me over our poker games at the North Pole...as I was saying," he turned and pointed a finger at Chip Morton. "You have been a very baaad boy."

"Me?"

"Uh, how, 'Santa'?" Nelson got into the merriment.

"Santa has it on the best authority that your XO has been lax in the command duties entrusted to him. Has he once patted the bulkhead? Has he once told Seaview she's been a good girl? No. But Santa understands, indeed, it's only because he's thinking about his mother and father and brothers and sisters at this time of year that he's forgotten what he promised the Captain. Therefore..."he nudged Jamison, "that's your cue," Crane whispered, "Therefore", 'Santa' Crane continued, as Jamison tore open the waterproof bag, and handed overthe small packet inside, "you will take your family on vacation and..."

"This...this is an all expenses paid vacation for seven to Disney World! Lee, you can't afford this.."

"Don't interrupt Santa," 'Santa' Crane said, "Especially when he's on a roll," Lee added and leaned toward Nelson. "We'll handle all those pesky financial details later, Admiral," he stage whispered. " Now" 'Santa' Crane returned, "Ho, ho, ho, let's see who's next..."

For the next half hour or so, 'Santa' distributed presents as he meandered about the boat. It was noted deliveries were not in any kind of order, alphabetical or rating. One thing was certain, though. All the gifts were matching the interests of the recipients. For example, Ski received a sexy calendar from a popular TV show along with a date with the star of the show, which caused wolf whistles and back slapping among his pals. Riley got a gift card to one of the more expensive surfboard shops, and Cookie a prepaid hotel reservation and entry form for the Pillsbury Bake Off.

 

"Ah, Mr. O'Brien, " 'Santa' said, as he returned to the Control Room, keeping it up thought the wetsuit was damned uncomfortable now, " 'Santa' can't claim responsibility for this, but he can be the bringer of good news..."he handed the Jr. Officer a folded document.

"Uh, I'm sorry sir, but I think this must've gotten mixed up..It's a savings bond for a Francine O'Brien"

"Oops," Crane said, and retrieved another document, " Santa doesn't make mistakes," 'Santa' Crane said, " but he can be forgetful at times, ho, ho, ho."

"My god!" O'Brien wavered on his feet.

"What is it Frank?" Morton asked.

"I'm a dad! Shelia wasn't due yet," he added, somewhat fearful looking at Crane for reassurance about the copy of the birth certificate.

"She's fine, so's the baby," Lee grinned, "Happened just before I stole the pla...uh, I mean," he reverted to 'Santa', "acquired transportation."

"I just bet, Lee..."Nelson began.

"Transportation" 'Santa' continued, "that will be available topside as soon as Commander Jackson arrives with a relief pilot for the seaplane already upstairs. Don't you wish now, Admrial, that you'd written Santa for a new inducer valve for the Flying Sub?"

"I didn't know it was going to break and it's not my fault we didn't have a replacement in stores and...."

" 'Santa' even remembered you," Santa ignored Nelson, turning to Starke, Jamison handing him a coupon. "It'll have to do, had a bit of a deadline...you know, especially this time of year...".

"No doubt. Thank you Captain," he laughed, showing off two complete meal coupons for the all hours restaurant Denny's which prided itself on its holiday meals.

"Ahem," 'Santa' turned to Nelson, "Now you have been almost as naughty as Chip Morton."

"I have?" Nelson asked, incredulous to the amused stares of the crew.

"You have."

"Well?" Starke asked.

"In addition to breaking the Flying Sub's inducer valve, it has come to Santa's attention that he has neglected himself."

"Myself?"

"No sense denying it. Santa knows you want to spend time with your sister and that's a good thing, but Santa also thinks you should spend some time meeting Dr. Libe who is scheduled to speak at the Paris Science Symposium," Crane handed him an info packet.

"Lee, I can't accept this.."

"Santa's feelings will be crushed if you don't, besides," Lee then continued as Lee, "She's already there getting fitted for a Dior gown for the reception to follow. You're staying at the Hilton. You don't want to disappoint her, do you?"

"Lee...I..."

"Give up Admiral," Jamison said, "Trust me, it's no use to argue with him."

"Good" 'Santa Crane agreed, "Ho, ho, ho. Glad you learned your lesson."

"Lee...I don't know what to say," Nelson was genuinely moved, "Thank you. I don't know how you can afford this, but thank you..."
"And now for my faithful elf," Santa pulled out a heavy manila envelope tucked inside his pant's pocket and handed it to Jamison.

"What...I..."

"Well open it," Crane urged.
"Oh my god...how did you do this?"

"Never ask Santa his secrets, just enjoy them."'

"Will, what is it?" Nelson asked.

"My book! How? Every publisher I sent it to rejected it! Lee," he suddenly gasped in sudden horror, "you didn't pay for it to be published did you?"

"Santa does not frequent the vanity press. Look at the inside cover."

"The American Medical Association? Lee? How?"

"Just enjoy it Will..."

"Lee, this has been one of the most memorable..."Nelson began but was cut off by 'Santa'.

"And now, last but not least.."

"But there's nobody left," Ski said.

"Ah, but there is," Santa reached into his other pocket and pulled out a rolled scroll. "Admiral Nelson? Would you do the honors?"

"Some kind of certificate...."Nelson began to read it, then leaned on the periscope railing, also overcome.

'Harriman?"Jiggs asked.

"Read it..."Nelson said as Lee walked toward the Nose, poured himself a drink, and leaned a hand against one of the windows.

"...It's from The International Star Registry....they...they've named a star for...Seaview? And here's a picture of it...my god, Crane..."Starke said, awed.

"It's not a name any real astronomical board will recognize," Lee began softly, but for all that she is, all that she means...has done, will do...for all of us, for mankind...well..."he paused, then reverted to character, "Santa feels her name should be written in the stars, for all to see."

"Amen to that, Skipper...I mean Santa," Ski said to the applause that had erupted.

"Wait a minute, guys, settle down," the Chief interrupted, "What about the Skipper? I mean...what do you I mean, what does Captain Crane want for Christmas?"

Lee sank gratefully into one of the lounge chairs, and grinned," Crane already has what he wants for Christmas, Chief. To be home with his family." Then raising his glass in a toast in his best immitation. "Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas!"

"Excuse me," Sparks called out, "but I have a call from ONI...for Captain Crane."

"Captain Crane's not here, Sparks," Lee said, pointing to his beard.

"Uh..."

"But," Lee sighed, "Ho, ho, ho, Santa is," 'Santa' Crane rose and turned on the monitor.

"Crane! What's the big idea! Did you and Jackson steal a seaplane or didn't you? What the hell are you dressed up like that for? No sooner than I get back to my office I get a message from security that he's being flown out to sea to pilot another plane back!"

"Is Scampi Seaplanes sub-contracted to ONI or not?" Lee replied his 'character' abandoned.

"Well...yes, but..."

"And authorized for official Reserve use?"

"Stealing a..."

"Borrowing."

"Borrowing a seaplane in nothing less than a covert action when there isn't one is hardly..."

"Come here Frank." Lee put his arm on O'Brien's' shoulder, "This is Lt. Frank O'Brien, and as of," Crane looked at his watch, "twelve minutes ago was released on compassionate family leave. Now, we can have the Institute send you the copies of the paperwork while you make up your mind about us using your plane, but do you really want me to keep him cooped up aboard Seaview when he should really be going home to his wife and baby, a premature baby at that, just born tonight, when they need him the most?"
"Crane.."

"I could call in some favors," Lee grinned like a Cheshire cat. "I mean, how would it look. Seaview doing all your hard work then when we ask for a simple benefit that we're entitled to...and..."

"I don't think I want to know the 'and'."

"And," Lee continued," of course, I might just decide to stay home when you want me to...

"You have a mighty high opinion of yourself Crane."

"Part of my job description. Take it, or leave it."

"Skipper?" Sparks called out, "There's a plane topside requesting we surface to so they can pick up a passenger."

"Well, Doug?" Crane asked.

"Very well. Don't you ever pull a stunt like this again, do you understand?"

"Perfectly."

"Hmph. I'll believe that when hell freezes over. "

"Santa never lies, Ho, ho, ho..."

"ONI out."

"He does, however," Lee added for the benefit of his crew, "sometimes stretch the truth a bit...better hurry and get your gear together Frank. And if I didn't say it before, congratulations."

***

"Permission to sit on the front porch?" Crane asked from the spiral ladder, suitably disrobed as Santa and attired in his familiar old pajamas and robe.

"Lee! It's past 0300," Nelson said. "And since when do you need permission?"

"I couldn't sleep," he relaxed in the lounger, "Too much adrenaline I guess. Malone told me you were still up...Did Will give you the details about my limitations? He was spitting tacks at me when we cleaned up. You know, I don't think he gets out much."

"The only limitations he mentioned was a problem with your inner child escaping like it did tonight," Nelson laughed, "and your James Bond Syndrome as he calls it, but don't worry, Lee. As of 0800 tomorrow, I mean today, you're back on full duty....Lee...am I correct in assuming you knew what some of us wanted by bugging the boat?"

"Who me?"Lee grinned, "Actually, Joe had heard some conversations before you even sailed...so when I planned on becoming Santa Claus, well, we just put our heads together. I kind of conned Doc into it."

"But the expense Lee! I can't even begin to think how much you've spent..."

"Purely an ulterior motive on my part to request a raise. Just joking...actually I had a small inheritance from my aunt tucked away for a rainy day. Well, with Seaview stuck out here for the holidays, well, I couldn't think of a better time to use it..."

"Excuse me Admiral," one of the galley crew approached, "But before Cookie went to bed he told me you might like some milk and cookies."

"Ah, actually," Nelson said, "I think that's Captain Crane's department."

Lee stretched his legs and reached for the offering,"Don't mind if I do. Just the thing after a a long night's work. Thanks. And Merry Christmas."

"You too Skipper...Santa," the crewman grinned as he left.

Lee managed one of the cookies and half the milk before he found he couldn't keep his eyes open against the comforting beeps and hums that was Seaview's adjacent Control Room. Nelson thought better of waking him and decided to let him sleep there. Getting a blanket from under one the storage chests by the whiskey cabinet, he spotted the discarded Santa cap and elf shoes the Chief had put under the tree. And the engraved scroll with Seaview's star. Yes, Nelson thought, Kris Kringle would be proud...

"But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight," Nelson whispered as he covered Lee with the blanket, "Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night."

 

 

*Exerpt from: The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore